During the spring trimester of my first year in college, I participated in an off-campus college program where I lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico with a Mexican host family, went to school, and continued to learn Spanish that I had started during the first trimester of my freshman year in college. When we weren’t in school or with our host Mexican families, the group of us and our professor traveled extensively to numerous archeology sites, many museums and others areas of cultural interest. It was 1977 and I was ready for all sorts of adventures.
My roommate, another college freshman, was even more adventurous. I remember when he came back from a three day weekend to Acapulco, filled with numerous stories. He described to me the cheap hotel that he found, the amazing beaches that he visited, and the wondrous sites of this Pacific coast city. The more he talked about the white sandy beaches and the friendly people I just had to go.
So, when our next three day weekend arrived, I got up in the middle of the night and took the midnight bus to the coast. This was not your typical American Greyhound Bus line with plush seats and streamline highways. It was the midnight school bus for people with little money and everything they owned with them. This, at times, would include chickens and other animals and numerous pots and pans. I don’t remember the bus ride other than it being loud and bumpy.
With little sleep, I arrived in the shining city of Acapulco and found the recommended hotel. I asked for the cheapest room like my room mate in Cuernavaca did. I got one next to the stair well with no window, no bathroom and only a screen door for a door. It was not what I had pictured nor exactly what he had described.
Then, I changed into my swim suit and headed out to the white sandy beaches. My roommate had described a place out on a point at the end of a particular bus line where there were free hammocks under large thatched roofed huts. I went out there and discovered that I had the whole place to myself. But on further investigation, I discovered there was a reason that no one was around. The ocean waves out on this point were two plus stories high. When I walked down to the beach to consider some swimming, the waves were quite intimidating if not terrifying. After a bit and with the start of a sun burn, I grabbed the next bus back to the city.
By then, I really wanted to go swimming in the ocean so I walked from the hotel down to the local beach and just dove in. After a couple of minutes, many Mexicans just stopped swimming and started staring at me. Finally, one of them asked me in Spanish, “Hey gringo. What are you doing here?”
“Swimming,” I replied.
“Why here?” they inquired.
“Because this is where the ocean is,” I responded.
“Why aren’t you swimming with the Americans?”
“Because I live with a Mexican family in Cuernavaca.”
“Oh! Welcome to Mexico. Welcome to Acapulco.”
And I went swimming the rest of the afternoon, the only, very white, sun burned red headed gringo amongst hundreds of Mexican families.
Later, when I had dried off, I walked down the beach and ran into a young American couple. I don’t exactly remember if they were lost or needed help with purchasing something at the market, but in the end given what ever good deed I had done, they invited me back to their very American hotel and we had a meal together. The contrast was over the top startling. One part of the day I was in Mexico and the next moment I could have been in a hotel along the beach at Atlantic City, New Jersey.
After a lousy night of sleep (having a screen door as a hotel room door will do that to a person), I decided to head back home to Cuernavaca. It took many hours with much haggling to get a bus ticket back to my host family. Once I was on the bus, I started to dose off from shear exhaustion. Then, the bus stopped and the Mexican police came on with loaded guns. They walked down the aisle until they came to me. I answered a couple of questions about what I was doing on the bus and where I was going. My answers must have been pretty comical and non-threatening because after a moment, the head of those who had stopped the bus shouted something that ended with “stupid gringo” and stormed off. To this day, I am not sure why we got stopped but others have told me that the police more likely thought I was a drug runner. But one look at me, a by now a very sunburned and exhausted American, who did not have a clue about was going on, and they knew they had not found who they were looking for. In the end, I returned to Cuernavaca around midnight and stumbled home for a good night of sleep. In the morning, my roommate and I had a long in-depth conversation about his trip and my trip to Acapulco. His vision and my reality were miles if not oceans apart.
As a leader, we forget that some days the best visions are mostly incomplete. Usually, they are vague and abstract. Therefore, the followers naturally fill in the blank spots and create expectations in the process. At times, we forget this because we are so focused on the vision. Nevertheless, when followers listen, they expect the reality of the vision, and the journey toward this vision to be what is described. Often they are not prepared for the actual journey, nor the experience once they get there.
Reality can be difficult. For me, it was more adventure than I could handle. Next time, I will pack more sun screen, plan more carefully and take the vision plus the journey in a more cautious and thoughtful manner. As Warren Bennis reminds us, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Hopefully, we as leaders can become better at creating the vision and defining the vision so that when the followers translate it into reality, it does not have so many hurdles and a wicked sun burn to boot.
Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257